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SpaceX Achieves Its First Soft Landing -- And Sues the Federal Government

SpaceX is protesting a sole-source contract awarded to Lockheed and Boeing.

Asa Mathat / All Things Digital

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk announced that the company pulled off the first soft landing of its Falcon 9 rocket over the ocean last week, opening the door for a possible terrestrial landing as soon as the end of the year.

But in an equally significant announcement, Musk said the company has filed a complaint in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, protesting the Air Force awarding of a lucrative single-source contract to United Launch Alliance, a joint rocket venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

For some time, SpaceX has been trying to earn certification to bid for Department of Defense military satellite missions. Musk said during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Friday that the Air Force has continually moved the goal posts on that process.

Since SpaceX has completed the required missions and is merely awaiting official sign-off, the military procurement office should have delayed the awarding of that contract, Musk argued.

“This is not right, the national security launches should be put up for competition,” Musk said.

He said the United Launch Alliance rockets are four times more expensive than those created by SpaceX.

It’s costing “U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars for no reason and to add salt to the wound, the primary engine used is a Russian engine,” he said.

Alluding to the current conflict in the Ukraine, Musk added: “It’s very questionable in light of international events. It seems like the wrong time to send hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kremlin.”

Musk said the company notified the Air Force of its actions shortly before Friday’s press conference.

The Hawthorne, Calif., company equipped its latest Falcon 9 rocket with four legs for a launch on April 18, in an effort to test landing capabilities.

The plan was to reignite one engine on the first stage of the rocket as it fell back to earth to reduce velocity as it approached the Atlantic Ocean. They hoped to deploy the legs about 10 seconds before splash down. The company only gave it about a 30 percent to 40 percent chance of success, as Re/code wrote previously.

But numerous sensors indicated it worked, and that the rocket briefly paused in an upright position above the water.

Musk said that they will continue to refine the approach during several additional launches scheduled for this year, specifically working to improve their ability to target a narrow landing site.

“I’m optimistic we’ll be able to land a stage back at Cape Canaveral [Air Force Station] by the end of the year,” he said. “Assuming that happens, we should be able to re-fly the main boost stage some time next year.”

That could lead to drastically reduced expenses for future flights, as that stage accounts for about 70 percent of the costs.

“It’s a huge day,” Musk said. “We’ve been trying to do this at SpaceX for a long time.”

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